It is an understood fact that privilege and silence are strongly correlated. History tells us that those with racial, gendered, class, or religious power will insulate themselves in whatever way they can, leaving all those with less to fend for themselves. And, if nothing else, the U.S. presidential election has brought this fact back to the forefront, forcing those unwilling to confront privilege and power in themselves, their homes, and their communities to come out of the shadows and explain themselves as we face the reality of Donald Trump as president.
We might say the same thing about anthropologists who, despite pretensions to the contrary, are never outside of the historical paradigms in which they live and work. Most anthropologists have been happy to study faraway people and places, safe in the knowledge that they can build careers without the risk of speaking out against injustices right here at home. In other words, anthropologists, like everyone else, are in the midst of an identity crisis, suddenly debating who should speak, about what, and when. In that respect, this year’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association was an opportunity for fieldwork: in what ways are silence and privilege to be renegotiated in Trump’s America?
Over drinks a few of my colleagues sit and chat about our future projects. One starts talking about the shift in his own research: if once he was studying places far away, he is now compelled back to the United States to do fieldwork, part of a kind of post-Trump awakening in the more liberal wings of the white academy. He wants to study white fashion, he tells us, politicizing whiteness in the United States in the process.
But even as he begins to conceive of this project, he stops for a second. “I have to ask you all your advice,” he admitted, “because I’m a little afraid of doing this work.” To which I replied instinctively, “What are you afraid of? You’re white.”
There are a lot of ways to read what I said, but there are two I want to mark here. First, please observe that a white anthropologist is negotiating concerns that come with transforming into a native anthropologist, taking up a mantle that has been conveniently conferred on the traditional Other for so long. With that mantle comes the kind of self-reflexivity that emerges when you begin a project with the knowledge that you will see something of yourself in your object of study.
At the same time my response was also about racial power. The native anthropologist was always attending to some version of a marginal, heavily racialized identity, settler-colonial or otherwise. But the white anthropologist studying a group of white people carries none of that history of colonizer violence, nor the anthropological complicity in that project.
It was an open-and-shut case. Anthropologize whiteness, please. It’s high time. Let the mirror do its job.
In response, my colleague suggested that, for him, there was another layer to the politics of studying whiteness: how could he say unflattering things about privileged white people without just deepening the divide between left and right? His hesitation was about the unknowns of doing explicitly political work, about being able to ascertain a priori if one’s findings would lead to change.
Two days later, the script flips. I am giving a talk about camra, the University of Pennsylvania’s multimodal research collective. I explain to a crowd of eager multimodal anthropologists that the anthropological study of images must be, first and foremost, about racialized ways of seeing. To somehow abstract anthropological theorizing from these basic questions is to lose sight of all of the ethical conundrums that make anthropology the discipline it is today. After all, I argue, our entire project was predicated on particular ways of seeing the Other, placing the Other into the curiosity cabinets of our imaginations. Primitivizing, exoticizing, and dehumanizing brown and black bodies: this was and continues to be a strong part of what visual anthropology must reckon with when theorizing with and producing images.
Many in the crowd seem enthusiastically in support. They nod their heads in approval and recognition. However, during the question-and-answer session, not a single person takes up the mantle in order to push these ideas further. Instead, we move into discussions of evaluation, research design, determining quality and impact, dealing with university bureaucracy—all of which are undoubtedly interesting questions, but which are denuded of purpose without asking how these ideas, institutions, and possibilities are shaped by racialized structures of power, whether we are making images in the United States or India or anywhere else. The question that should have been on the table was this: how do we teach students to design studies that begin with our history of racialized image production? At such moments, it can feel like you are shouting into an echo chamber of white (and white-adjacent) privilege.
However, after the session ended, another anthropologist of color came up to me with words of encouragement: “Thank you for starting with the issue of the racialized gaze.” She explained that for the past thirty years, visual anthropology has avoided such questions in favor of solipsistic debates on how to stake claim to greater disciplinary space. “But,” she says, “I want to re-engage the racial and ethnic politics of our image-making. That should be our legacy.” If there is a reason for optimism in the post-Trump academy, it is that such ideas, which were acknowledged in passing glances, are now being made explicit. They are not just the social facts that people of color know and live by; they also, with work, can become the most effective way of driving our discipline into the future.
Just as importantly, we might return to the problem of silence and ask: who did not change their approach to the conference based on the changing political climate? What privileges must they possess, what wellsprings of self-preservation must they harbor? These silences are also part of the story I am telling, insofar as they express an ability to look away in the wake of massive changes that, while they may not be surprising, nevertheless redefine how we make our way as engaged anthropologists.